The UK’s Most Widely Used Weed Killer Could Be Making Bread Toxic

In July, the UK’s Soil Association called for a ban on the use of glyphosate on wheat, a herbicide used by non-organic farmers to control weeds, saying that it could be carcinogenic.

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Sep 1 2015, 10:00am

Photo via Flickr user Jon Bunting

Careful now, your toast might be killing you.

In July, the Soil Association caused a right old ruckus when they called for a ban on the use of glyphosate on wheat. For those non-tweed wearers out there, glyphosate is the Mother Hen of herbicides, frequently used by non-organic farmers to control weeds.

Shotgun cocked and loaded, the Soil Association is taking aim. They claim that glyphosate is toxic and that it's in our bread. Yup, put down that toast.

Or not—the Soil Association's campaign to rid the British Isles of the world's most widely used weed killer has largely fallen on deaf ears. The National Farmers Union (NFU) and Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have both put the boot in, arguing that the claims are unfounded and that levels of glyphosate found in bread are not toxic at all.

READ MORE: Organic and Fair-Trade Foods Might Be Tricking You into Thinking they Taste Better

But Louise Payton, the Soil Association's farming and land-use policy officer told MUNCHIES that the arguments set out by the NFU and DEFRA are out of date. She accepts that the levels of glyphosate found in bread (apparently it appears in up to 30 percent of samples tested) are safe according to the DEFRA committee on Pesticide Residues in Food, but the Soil Association are pointing to a new study (released in March) by the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which says glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans," and therefore argue that this Maximum Residue level should be reevaluated.

In effect, the Soil Association are calling for a review and, in the meantime, they want the practice of pre-harvest spraying banned because they consider it to be completely "unnecessary."

Gardeners paint glyphosate on bindweed to kill it and they'll be very careful not to get it on their hands. Farmers are doing a similar thing by spraying weeds but they're also spraying the wheat itself.

"Gardeners paint glyphosate on bindweed to kill it and they'll be very careful not to get it on their hands," Payton explains. "Farmers are doing a similar thing by spraying weeds but they're also spraying the wheat itself and they're doing this in order to kill it and make it easier to harvest. That's how it gets into the food and that's the use of glyphosate that we're calling for a ban on."

But NFU chief arable adviser Guy Gagen says glyphosate is a hugely "important substance for farmers growing wheat at the end of a crop's life in order to even up its ripening and to control any weeds that are still alive." He adds that until DEFRA's regulatory body calls for a ban, the NFU's members are free to use whichever products they like.

He also says the IARC study has been misrepresented by some areas of the press. The study only assesses the "hazard" of something rather than the "risk," with the distinction being that hazards can potentially be dangerous rather than actually are. In fact, IARC also consider apples, pickled onions, and coffee to be "probably carcinogenic to humans" too.

As a result, Gagen and many other members of the NFU accuse the Soil Association of stirring things up and questions their involvement.

"I'm not sure why the Soil Association are interested in a product that they don't use [by law organic farmers are not permitted to use glyphosate on their crops]. If people want to buy organic bread then they're quite free to do so," Gagen says. "I can only speculate as to what on Earth their objective could be. Unless it's a marketing ploy to frighten people out of eating non-organic bread and getting people to eat their product and increase their market share, I'm really struggling to see what the objective of their campaign is."

But Payton says that the Soil Association has a history of campaigning against pesticides that scientific studies say are harmful and that the IARC study has particular worth because rather than looking at glyphosate on its own— which is what pesticide regulators do—it reviews products that contain glyphosate mixed in with other chemicals.

One of these products is Roundup, the most famous glyphosate-rich herbicide brand. Charla Lord is the head of Corporate Engagement at the Monsanto Company, the company that produces Roundup. He says that glyphosate's safety is backed up by "more than 800 different studies," many of which were conducted by independent researchers resulting in "one of the largest human health and safety databases ever compiled on an agricultural product." He adds: "No regulatory agency considers glyphosate to be a carcinogen."

"There's nothing new in the IARC classification. IARC did not conduct a study, and it did not look at any new data or studies," Lord says. "Regulatory agencies have reviewed the key studies considered by IARC to arrive at their more thorough and rigorous conclusions. IARC is one of four different WHO programs that has reviewed glyphosate and the only one to arrive at this conclusion. The responsibility and authority for evaluating the safety of pesticides lies with regulatory agencies around the world—not with IARC."

But some quarters have claimed that the IARC study is the first independent review that balances a series of Monsanto-sponsored reviews of Roundup and glyphosate toxicity, which, of course, have concluded that these substances are safe to use.

At the crux of this particular issue, however isn't some kind of Watergate-style cover up, it's about the practice of pre-harvest spraying and whether that should be allowed to continue or stopped in order to issue a review.

I'm not sure why the Soil Association are interested in a product that they don't use [by law organic farmers are not permitted to use glyphosate on their crops]. If people want to buy organic bread then they're quite free to do so.

Gagen says the use of glyphosate products such as Roundup is crucial to reduce cultivation of arable land, in other words prepping the land for crops by removing all the weeds. Any one can see that spraying a crop once or twice is favourable to leaving fields out of production in order to "get on top of the weed burden". But when it comes to the actual direct impact of pre-harvest spraying on wheat, the picture is less clear.

"I don't think there are any pesticides that actually increase the yield of a crop," Gagen says. "They're used carefully to ensure you don't lose the crop's yield before you harvest it. You're protecting the yield potential of that crop [rather than boosting it]".

READ MORE: Pesticides Are Causing Farmers to Become Suicidally Depressed

Payton also says that pre-harvest use of glyphosate doesn't seem important to yield profits adding that "it's not a huge issue for farmers, it just makes it easier to the harvest the crop." Although she does admit that the yield difference between organic and non-organic wheat is bigger than other crops but that "the gap could be reduced if there was more research put into organic farming by the UK government."

Unless an alternative was found in the near future an all out ban on glyphosate doesn't seem feasible. Some studies indicate that if glyphosate were unavailable in Europe alone, it would likely result in a loss of about 10 percent of wheat production. Comparatively, reevaluating a potentially cancer-causing herbicide for the sake of a slight shift in wheat yields doesn't seem like a massive loss, does it?

You'd go without toast for a year, right?